When asked about the desired identity of the Michigan men’s basketball team, Mike Smith didn’t hesitate. 

“Defense,” the graduate transfer senior said on a Zoom call with reporters Friday morning. “We need to get better on defense. I think our personality needs to be, get a stop. One stop at a time. If we get a stop, I think our offense will speak for itself.”

Through three games, the Wolverines’ offense has been prolific. Michigan is averaging 87 points per game, highlighted by a 96-point outburst in the opener against Bowling Green, and has received contributions from up and down the roster. Besides Oakland’s 1-3-1 zone, opponents have been unable to flummox the Wolverines’ attack. 

The defense, though, has left more to be desired. Michigan has surrendered 73 points per game. Though certainly a small sample size, it’s a significant uptick from the 68.3 it allowed last season. 

The effort to turn it around on defense centers around senior guard Eli Brooks. 

Last year, Brooks emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the Big Ten, often tasked with guarding the opponent’s top weapon. He both embraced and excelled in his role, abiding by a mantra that his Dad imparted on him: defense wins games and defense keeps you on the floor. 

“Honestly, I feel like anybody can play defense, it’s a mindset,” Brooks said. “The mindset of wanting to play defense and being willing to.” 

Brooks has taken it upon himself to instill that mindset within his teammates. Notably soft spoken — at times last year Michigan coach Juwan Howard referred to him as a “silent assassin” — Brooks has taken a more vocal role. Without Zavier Simpson’s voice filling the air within the confines of Crisler Center, players have been pressed to step up, Brooks among them. 

“He’s probably one of the loudest people on the court on defense,” Smith said. “When you have somebody like that, it kinda trickles through the team and makes everyone else want to speak. If you, and I don’t do this, but if a teacher allows you to cheat in class and talk to all your peers during a test, why don’t you use it? So that’s like an analogy on defense. Why doesn’t everybody talk? 

“Essentially it’s like having another person on defense, having six people. He’s kinda like the head of the snake.”

Brooks’ invaluable defense has been on full display so far this season. Michigan is allowing a stifling .84 points per possession with Brooks on the court, but that figure balloons to 1.23 points per possession with Brooks on the bench. 

This season, without Simpson, the Wolverines don’t have another defensive stopper at guard to flank Brooks. Smith was heralded at Columbia for his offensive feats and his defense has been suspect early on. More pressure, then, falls to Brooks. 

“For me, I try to chime in because I see the different actions,” Brooks said. “The coaches really want it to be a player-driven team, so when players see something, they want them to speak up.” 

Brooks is quick to deflect and play down his defensive aptitude. He notes that sophomore forward Franz Wagner and redshirt senior center Austin Davis are equally instructive on the defensive end. He credits former assistant coach Luke Yaklich for taking the time to pour over hours of film with him as an underclassmen and members of the scout team for calling out actions and tendencies from the bench. 

Still, it’s clear that Brooks brings an added dimension to Michigan with his defense. His skill has proved advantageous even in practice, where his play serves as an exemplar for teammates to mimic. 

“It’s weird because he’s always in the right spot at the right time,” Smith said. “I’d think I’d be beating him off a ball screen and somehow he just magically appears right next to me or in front of me. He’s quick, he’s like a cat. He’s always there, always fighting. … And he’s a competitor. That’s one thing you can see out there in a game, he may be undersized but he’s gonna get out there and fight, go out there and compete every day.”

If the Wolverines are to right the ship on the defensive end, that effort will hinge on Brooks’ responsibility and rely on other players to buy into defense in the same way all-in manner that he has. 

“If you do the little things right, you’ve had a good game,” Brooks said. “If you’re solid, you’ve had a good game. You don’t have to be a superstar every single game. You just got to do the right thing and the right thing is to win games.”